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Updated: April 29, 2024

Supercharge your accounting practice with strategic referral building

Published By:

Janet Berry-Johnson, CPA

What if I said you could increase the effectiveness of your marketing budget by 54 percent, convert leads 30 percent better, and increase your client retention rate by 37 percent? You’d likely sign up for anything that could deliver those types of results, but the secret isn’t a new marketing tool or service: it’s asking for referrals.

 

If you’re an accounting professional looking to build your practice and grow your book of business, understanding the power of referrals is crucial. After all, when someone speaks favorably about their experience with your services, that endorsement carries more weight than any marketing message. But how do you get clients and colleagues to spread the word? And how do you ensure you’ll get a referral that moves the needle?

 

This article will uncover how to start earning better referrals today, strategies on how to build relationships, where to find qualified referral sources, and how to ask for them.

How do accountants and other professionals earn referrals?

First and foremost, the first step to earning referrals is to provide exceptional client service. After all, happy clients are ready and willing to sing your praises. Let’s assume you’re already doing that. What’s next?

 

You need to ask for them.

 

Asking for referrals can be a little intimidating if it’s not something you’re used to, which is likely one of the reasons why most accountants rarely ask. And if they do, it’s usually a one-off effort rather than part of their normal business development process.

 

However, if you make asking for referrals a regular part of your business development efforts, introductions to qualified candidates will almost certainly follow, increasing your chances of converting more prospects into clients.

Who is a good referral source?

When you think about who in your network might be able to make worthwhile introductions, existing clients are likely to be first on the list. Because they can speak first-hand about what it’s like to work with you — and their testimonials likely carry a lot of weight — current clients can be an excellent source of referrals.

 

That said, other contacts in your network can also be valuable referral resources. Here are some potential connections to consider:

  • Attorneys. Attorneys can be a great source of leads for accountants because they typically have clients who need estate planning, forensic accounting, business valuation, audit support, and other accounting services.
  • Bankers and loan officers. Bankers and loan officers can be great sources to make introductions because many work with clients on various financial-related matters, and these clients may need financial statements or help with cash flow management, loan covenants, tax planning and preparation, and more.
  • Small business consultants and coaches. Small business consultants and coaches can also help with new client opportunities because they’re in contact with business owners who need help structuring or restructuring their businesses, managing their finances, preparing tax documents, and analyzing financial data.
  • Financial planners. Financial planners may also have prospects they can send your way as they work with clients who need help with trust and estate tax compliance, business valuations, tax planning, and more.
  • Commercial real estate agents. Commercial real estate agents can be a great source of would-be clients for accountants because they’re often in contact with startups and expanding businesses.
  • Insurance agents. Insurance agents can be a great source of referrals for accountants because they often work with clients who need help with wealth management, payroll, income tax planning and preparation, and other accounting services.
  • Other accountants. Don’t overlook other accountants as referral resources! Many accountants specialize in offering specific services or serving particular industries and receive referrals for clients outside their specialization. Building a referral relationship with another accountant allows you to utilize each other’s networks.

 

The list above can give you some ideas about who in your current network might be a good source for new connections to grow your business. But what if you’re just getting your efforts off the ground? Let’s talk about some ways you can get started.

How to build referral relationships

If you’re just starting your practice or haven’t worked on developing your network connections yet, you might not have an existing network to tap into for referrals. But it’s never too late to start building one.

 

Here are a few places to get started.

  • Professional associations. Join your local CPA society or other accounting professional associations. These groups offer valuable networking opportunities and will help you build relationships with other accounting professionals in your area.
  • Business groups. Join your local Chamber of Commerce, BNI chapter, or Entrepreneurs’ Organization. These can be great places to meet business owners and future clients. Plus, these groups are often looking for speakers for their networking lunches and conferences, and speaking at these events can be an excellent way to develop your reputation as an expert and thought leader in your field.
  • Friends and family. Even if you think you don’t have a professional network, you likely have friends and family members who own businesses or know someone who does. Plus, they likely have friends in other industries like banking, law, and real estate.
  • Your college alumni association. If you went to a college or university in your area, attend alumni events to network with other alumni. Some universities even have alumni chapters in other cities, so even if you’ve moved, you might still be able to connect with other professionals who graduated from the same school.
  • Social events. Business professionals often attend charity galas, cultural events, sporting events, and happy hours, so attending social events in your area can also be a great way to expand your network.
  • Conferences and seminars. Attend conferences, trade shows, seminars, and educational events related to business. This is a great way to meet members of the local business community who may need your services.
  • Social media. Finally, keep up with opportunities to network online. If you’re not on LinkedIn (or have a profile but never engage on the platform), spruce up your profile, join a few business-related groups, and set aside time to engage daily. This is a great way to connect with potential clients and referral partners outside your geographic area.

 

Once you’ve identified a few groups that work for you, commit to going deep rather than wide. What does this mean?

 

There are plenty of activities and events where you can meet many people at once without really spending time with them. In my experience, this kind of surface-level networking rarely turns into meaningful referral relationships.

 

Instead of joining every association and attending every networking event, join a board or committee. This allows you to get to know people on a deeper level and turns acquaintances into genuine, lasting relationships.

How to ask for referrals

As we mentioned earlier, when accounting professionals ask for referrals, it’s often a one-off event, but you’ll have better results if you make it part of your business development process.

 

Making the ask

One way to do that is to ask for referrals from your clients and referral sources twice per year. Avoid simply sending a blanket email to everyone on your contact list. Instead, personalize each message.

 

For example, when asking a client for a referral, your email might say:

 

“I know you’re working on growing your business and managing cash flow, and I’m excited to work with other business owners like you. Do you know of any other entrepreneurs who might need our services?”

 

If sending dozens or even hundreds of emails twice a year seems impossible, remember, you don’t need to craft and send each email on your own. This is an excellent task to outsource to an administrative professional on your team or even a virtual assistant.

 

Getting the right referrals

Do you want to grow your business advisory practice but keep getting referrals for 1040 clients or audits?

 

As well-intentioned as these referrals may be, getting leads that are not a good fit for your services or niche is not the best use of your time. But remember, people aren’t able to refer the right clients if they don’t know who you’re looking for. So let them know.

 

For example, you might say, “I’m looking for other medical practices with 20 or more employees,” or “I’m interested in helping other startup founders get their financials in line so they can attract funding.”

 

Getting specific about the kind of referrals you want helps you avoid turning away prospective clients who don’t fit your ideal client profile.

 

Handling leads without an immediate need

What happens when you get a promising referral who doesn’t need your services right now, perhaps because they just engaged another firm? Keep them from slipping through the cracks. You can:

  • Set a reminder in your calendar to follow up in six months or a year.
  • Ask them to lunch and talk about whether they’re happy with their current firm.
  • Ask questions to determine whether there are other services they might need that the other firm hasn’t identified.

 

Reward referrals

If a referral prospect becomes a client, make it a point to show appreciation to your referral source. For existing clients, this can be a small gift card or a discount on future services. For referrals from other sources, such as attorneys or bankers, send a handwritten note, and don’t forget to return the favor by referring business to them.

Ask and you shall receive referrals that fit your needs

Asking for referrals doesn’t have to feel awkward. When you commit to continually developing relationships with potential clients and referral sources, these relationships can turn into long-term business opportunities that mutually benefit both parties. If you’re willing to invest the time and effort, referrals will do wonders for your business’s growth.

Talk to us and see how easy it is to offer payroll services your way.

Janet Berry-Johnson, CPA is a freelance writer with a background in accounting and income tax planning and preparation for small businesses and individuals. She enjoys helping people make sense of complicated accounting and income tax topics. She lives and works in Omaha, Nebraska. Visit her website at www.jberryjohnson.com.